It is no secret that the Cleveland Browns will enter the 2011 season with some major concerns on the offensive side of the ball. However, the team cannot and will not dwell on that – it’s just the way it will be this season. The Browns will be changing offensive systems for what seems like the hundredth time since their return in 1999. However, this time the system, the West Coast offense (which can trace its roots back to Cleveland, thanks to Paul Brown) appears to be a good fit for the current team, at least on paper.
Last season the combination of left tackle Joe Thomas, left guard Eric Steinbach, and center Alex Mack formed arguably the best left side of any offensive line in the league. Both Thomas and Mack made the Pro Bowl, and the argument could have been made for Steinbach as well. However, Steinbach will not be able to play this season, as he underwent surgery to repair a disc issue in his back.
Replacing Steinbach at left guard will likely be one of two linemen in Jason Pinkston and recently acquired Artis Hicks. On the right side, the Browns will have two new starters in right guard Shawn Lauvao and right tackle Tony Pashos. Lauvao played sparingly last season, his rookie season, though did start one game and played in ten total games. Pashos, a big free agent signing last season, saw limited playing time last season due to an injury. The Browns have also brought in right guard John Greco from St. Louis and right tackle Oniel Cousins from Baltimore to provide depth behind Lauvao and Pashos.
The Browns are deep at tight end, with the potential to have the best set of tight ends in the league this season. Starting again this season is Ben Watson, who set career highs last season in both receptions (66) and yards (763). Backing up Watson will be third-year tight end Evan Moore, who just recently agreed to a new contract extension with the team.
The Browns will also head into the season with Alex Smith and rookie Jordan Cameron. In past years Smith has proven to be a reliable target, though last season he only played in three games, totaling one reception. Cameron brings with him a ton of upside, though he will be a bit of a project as he only played one season at tight end while at Southern California.
While a number of fans were outspoken about the Browns not pursuing a wide receiver in the off-season, the team remained true to their word by not going after any free agent receivers. Getting the starting nod early this season will likely be Mohamed Massaquoi and Brian Robiskie – both of whom are entering the infamous third year for a wide-out.
Rookie wide receiver Greg Little showed flashes during the preseason, but will need some time to kick the rust after sitting out last season while attending North Carolina. Joshua Cribbs looks like he will finally figure out the wide receiver role this season, and will again see time in the slot and likely as a spot starter. The Browns will be carrying six wide receivers this season, rounding out group with second-year receiver Carlton Mitchell, who saw virtually no time last season, and Jordan Norwood, who has spent the last two seasons on the practice squad. Both Mitchell and Norwood have received rave reviews from the coaching staff and it comes as no surprise that both made the team.
The Browns will head into this season with three running backs, two of which are essentially rookies. It’s no secret that Peyton Hillis is the man here. He will again be the team’s starter, though the team hopes to be able to lighten his load, as he slowed down a bit as last season progressed.
Behind Hillis will be second-year back Montario Hardesty, who is recovering from a knee injury that ended his 2010 season in the preseason. Rookie free agent Armond Smith made the team due to the injury that will sideline the newly-acquired Brandon Jackson, though Smith must working on protecting the ball, as he fumbled three times in preseason.
Also getting the starting nod this season will be rookie fullback Owen Marecic, who is a throwback type, having played both sides of the ball while at Stanford last season. The big question around the Browns running backs will be health, especially when you take Hillis’ running style and Hardesty’s injury history into account.
Colt McCoy is the Browns’ starter going into the season, which is no surprise. McCoy will be in a system similar to the one he ran at Texas, which can only benefit the second-year quarterback. Seneca Wallace will again serve as the backup to McCoy. The Browns were also recently awarded second-year quarterback Thaddeus Lewis from waivers. Lewis will be the team’s third-string quarterback as well as a project of head coach Pat Shurmur, who coached Lewis last season in St. Louis.
The Browns offense appears to be heading in the right direction after finding what the team hopes are building blocks in Peyton Hillis, Colt McCoy, a line anchored by Thomas and Mack, an athletic bunch of tight ends, and the young contingent of wide receivers. However, as we learned last season, depth will once again be a concern. The team will need to limit the number of injuries for any chance of success, but that can be said about any NFL team.
Youth will also be the focal point of this year’s offensive squad as Watson, Pashos, Wallace, and Hicks are the only offensive players over the age of 30. Look for this year’s Browns squad to improve as the season goes on, even though it will be a learning experience having to get acclimated to the new offensive system. While it may not look pretty at times, we as Browns fans need to give the team some time before we can pass any sort of judgment on the offense.